By JONATHAN BERR, who has written for national media outlets for more than 15 years
Bedbugs are not just for beds any more. Now, the blood-sucking insects are becoming a nuisance for retailers.
Abercrombie & Finch recently shut down the four-story flagship location of its Hollister brand aimed at teenagers in New York's trendy Soho neighborhood for what the Gothomist blog described as a "massive bedbug outbreak." The creepy critters were also found in at Victoria's Secret in Manhattan.
Stories about bedbugs have whipped New Yorkers into a fever pitch. Last year, the city received more than 30,000 bedbug inquiries. City Councilwoman Gale Brewer was described in this New York Times blog as the "woman bedbugs should fear." Even New York's billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg can't escape their clutches, reportedly telling Brewer that his friends have bedbugs.
The fact that bedbugs are being found in stores at all is a testament to their tenacity and the reported 500 percent increase in their population during the past few years. Indeed, retailers are not an ideal place for bedbugs because people usually don't stay seated long enough to get bit. But as research entomologist Jeff White of Bed Bug Central said, the bugs can travel to apparel sellers if they were first taken to an infested home. Though odds of someone getting bedbugs from a store are long, they are enough to cause companies some concern because of the potential for lawsuits.
"Bedbugs in retail stores weren't much of a concern until a few weeks ago when these stories about Abercrombie and Fitch and Hollister hit the newsstand," White wrote in an e-mail to Risk & Insurance®. "Since it's such a new topic, I can't really comment about what stores are doing because I think they are still trying to figure out the risk and how to address it."
Indeed, calls to risk managers at retail companies were not immediately returned. Officials from the National Retail Federation were also unavailable.
Marc Kunney, managing principal with Integro Insurance Brokers, pointed out that bedbugs present a vexing challenge to retailers from an environmental, health and safety perspective.
"Everyone thought they had been eradicated in the 1940s, but they are back. It certainly is a hot topic," Kunney said, adding that he is fielding more calls from retailers. "They are hard to identify. You can't see them that readily ... You have to think, 'Am I going to use pesticide?' "
But as the New York City situation shows, closing a large, well-known store to spray for bugs invites negative publicity. The other alternative is to run returned clothes through a dryer, but that might not make the public feel good either if they found out about it.
"That undermines the integrity and goodwill and certainly your brand reputation," the insurance broker said, adding that retailers are "trying to avoid the scenario rather than figure out how to insure the scenario."
There is no scientific evidence that bedbugs transmit disease to humans. They are thriving for many reasons, including increased foreign travel and a lack of effective pesticides. If a customer can prove that their home was infested after visiting a store, then that company would face huge legal liabilities. Ridding a two-bedroom apartment in the Northeast of bedbugs can cost $800 to $1,200 depending on the severity on the infestation. A retail store is even more costly.
"Bedbug treatment and control is very expensive," White says.
August 3, 2010
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